How to get a head start on the competition

Nov. 10, 2009

By John Graham

People are breathing a little easier and optimism is up. Some experts tell us the worst is behind us. Yet spending time convincing ourselves that the cup is half full is both an irresistible and totally dumb exercise. It wastes personal and business resources, doesn’t change anything, and diverts us from taking positive action.

If you want to get a head start on the competition in the coming year, here are nine tools that will help you make a difference:

1. Sleeping companies will be playing catch up.
If you’re expecting the economic tide to float your boat any time soon, you may be in for a surprise. At least, that’s the way Walmart sees it. According to an Associated Press story, company chairman Robson Walton says, “I think this recovery will be a slow one.” That’s why Walmart is on the move. “There is change and opportunity in a crisis,” he said.

Walmart, HP, GE, Siemens and many other companies are taking big steps to raise their visibility and look to the future, but they are also determined to capture more of the existing business. Sure, they’re huge enterprises, but why not learn from the leaders?

2. Customer blindness causes most marketing failures. Most marketing fails because companies are more interested in what they want to accomplish instead of what the customer wants, needs, or appreciates.
The iPhone went from zero to leader in the smartphone market in just three years, zooming past other leaders. How did this happen? The apps are the answer. For example, you don’t need to be concert-going age to appreciate iConcertCal, the app that scans the music on your iPhone or iTouch and gives you information on when your favorite artists will perform in your area.

Whether I want to see the latest news, read a book, look for a coffee shop, make a reservation at a restaurant, play a game, take notes, send a file, or any of a thousand other tasks, I can do them with ease and convenience. The iPhone is all about the customer, not the company that makes it. Maybe that’s why Apple is solid to the core.
Doing whatever it takes to make a difference to the customer is the big job.

3. Never lose contact with customers. The president of a new community bank in Massachusetts sends a weekly electronic newsletter to each of his 300 investors to keep them up-to-date. “This business is exciting and I enjoy keeping those who helped build the bank engaged with the bank,” says Tony Nuzzo of First Commons Bank in Newton, Mass. Although he’s headed several banks for the last 20 years, it’s no accident that he started his career with Procter & Gamble in marketing.

Now contrast Tony Nuzzo’s way of cultivating customers with what happened to the business executive who spent $10,000 on hearing aids from two companies in just over six years. As mind-boggling as it may seem, neither hearing aid company reached out to their customer. Why didn’t either offer an annual check-up? Why didn’t they share helpful tips with customers? Why not a satisfaction survey? Why no personal attention? Why don’t they provide information on new, improved technology? Whatever the business, there is always something that is helpful in building customer relationships.

4. Keep the CEO’s hands off the marketing. While there are notable exceptions (Tony Nuzzo being one), most CEOs are so focused on the company that they have trouble seeing the customer clearly. Of all the incredibly stupid things General Motors Co. has done lately, featuring its nonexecutive chairman in its “May the best car win” campaign (offering to return a buyer’s money in 60 days after purchase) may top just about any list. Why spend millions of dollars on a crucial marketing campaign using a spokesperson who knows nothing about the car business, and who was selected for the job by the government?

The answer, of course, is sadly obvious: they want his support for spending the government’s money on advertising.
Good marketing requires objectivity, and that requires distance and the absence of ego. That leaves out at least 90% of CEOs.

5. Be very wary of marketing fads. This includes the social media such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more. Just because something is the current rage and you don’t want to be left out doesn’t mean you should drop everything and wade in up to your eyes.

There is no marketing panacea and there are no shortcuts. Marketing takes time, energy, and money. Unless you are ready to commit the time and resources to develop a following on the social media, look in other directions. If you want to be left behind, then don’t take marketing seriously.

6. Watch out for pressures to separate marketing and sales.
Salespeople are known to have problems with marketers. They see themselves on the top of the totem pole and marketers somewhere far below. They are poles apart.

Unfortunately, they seem to be further separated today. That spells trouble. For a company’s sales to be successful, both are needed. For each to reach higher, they need to listen and learn from each other. Both need to ratchet down their foolhardy arrogance.

7. Diversify your marketing activities. Marketing today is more demanding than ever. In a word, it’s complicated. It’s a matter of following the customers, being where they are, and offering messages that speak to even tiny market segments.

Being sensitive to the way customers think and behave is the marketing task. One marketing agency is on the right track by surveying a client’s customers to learn what time of the day or night they want to receive eBulletins. Another example is surveying hundreds of business people to better understand what they want in the salespeople who call on them.

8. Don’t let “free” bite you in the end. It will do exactly that if you let it. The power of free is enormous, a pervasive state of mind driven by the Internet. In fact, it’s blinding. Free has power and it’s what customers expect. But don’t get fooled by it. Just because sending 10,000 e-mails is free doesn’t mean it will produce positive results.

9. Put an edge on your message. Bland leads to blasé and that can be deadly. Give customers a guarantee that has teeth in it (WSJ, 9/13/09, “Why Hyundai is an American Hit”). The company lays down the gauntlet. It puts money on the line. It dares the customer to go elsewhere, and it works, as the sales figures attest.

But then there’s the GM watered down and totally wimpish 60-day money-back guarantee. Who wants to buy something and then admit they made a mistake? The issue is quality and a 60-day guarantee is ludicrous, typical of a corporate mindset that always stacks the deck against the customer. It’s as if GM is afraid to step up to the plate with an attention-getting guarantee that rocks. Without a sharp edge, there is no message.

Whatever the economic situation in 2010, sitting around keeping our fingers crossed is irresponsible. It’s time to stick our heads up and be seen. It’s time to put marketing to work.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, 617-328-0069, or [email protected]. The company’s Web site is